There’s a phenomenon in America that’s almost as shocking as discovering that Ben Franklin really did discover electricity by flying a kite in the rain. American readers are finally lifting the ban on the Dead White Male. And heralding his return is author H.W. Brands, whose 2000 release, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, was a Pulitzer prize finalist.
“There’s been this correction of a generation of avoiding the Great Man theory,” Brands said in an interview with The Crimson. “The dead white guys are back and from the standpoint of history, there’s something exotic and different about that.”
Brands’ tell-all narrative has catapulted to the top of the bestseller list. But the success of his year-and-a-half research, completed while Brands was a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, is not surprising given the country’s odd new obsession with history. Doing to literary culture what Britney Spears did for music, a penchant for biographies averaging over 400 pages has made American history a sexy, best-selling pop phenomenon.
“There’s something in the American sensibility right now where people want to be transported to a time that’s different enough that the story provides an escape but still appears modern” Brands says. He believes an over-emphasis on diversity and difference has created an impulse among Americans to find common links, especially through a common history.
In the past year, a biography of John Adams, another about the Founding Fathers, two of Theodore Roosevelt, one of Harry Truman and the near completion of a series on Lyndon Baines Johnson have all drawn tremendous media attention to a genre long obscured by a desire to include everyone.
But Brands, a lanky, youthful academic, offers a slightly different twist on the recent pack of Dead White Male biographies to hit the shelves. Brands hasn’t chosen a president, nor has he chosen a figure that has traditionally captivated the American imagination. In fact, the last major biography on Ben Franklin was written nearly six decades ago.
Instead, Brands has capitalized on his study of Ben Franklin, whose exploits are well beaten into the heads of most third graders. Franklin is an American cliché, the symbol of the self-made man with a broad array of talents: inventor (of the Franklin stove, bifocals), writer (of Poor Richard’s Almanac and editor of the Declaration of Independence), businessman (printer) and politician (beginning as colonial envoy to Britain followed by a lengthy stint as the elder member of the Constitutional Convention.)
It’s no easy task to make the author of the dictum, “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise,” into someone Americans of all shapes and sizes would care to read about. But Brands felt he could remake Franklin into an icon, using the man’s life to tell the story of American identity.
“There’s something distinctly modern in the spirit of Ben Franklin,” Brands contends. “He was very much a self-interested, self-made man, who made decisions based on pragmatics.”
While most American students are forced to suffer through the highly moralistic autobiography of a self-important Ben Franklin, a work which ends before the Revolutionary War even begins, Brands breathes new life into the familiar story of the so-called “first American.” His style is unconventional and, at times, audacious. He begins by placing the reader at a cockfight on royal grounds that Franklin attended just before answering for colonial misbehavior in front of the British Parliament.
Franklin admitted to being a “Briton” first and would probably have stayed in London had his wife, Dorothy, not forced him home to Philadelphia. But Dorothy’s claim on Franklin wasn’t strong enough to bring him home at night. Franklin’s philandering was well-known throughout colonial social circles, his fliration with prominent ladies often earning him seats at tables in society with which he could never compete financially.
He was always concerned about money as a printer traveling in the world of planters and fur traders. So, when the deist Franklin was offered a chance to print the pamphlets of the great fire and brimstone preacher, Jonathan Edwards, he had no reservations about being the largest distributor of Great Awakening propaganda. In a later controversy, Franklin was eager to print colonial paper money not because it would facilitate economic growth, but because he knew that as a printer, he’d get some of the cut for printing out the cash.
Like vignettes, each of Brands’ chapters provides a concise, lyrical summary of five years in the life of Franklin and five years in the growth of the U.S. Never judging, Brands relays the events of Franklin’s life as a series of choices made by a man who understood the changing realities of the world in which he lived.
Most of Franklin’s choices were self-interested. His political leanings had more to do with his family name and pocket than his ideals, at least until the Constitutional Convention. He tried to get his woefully incompetent son, William, appointed Royal Governor of New Jersey and opposed the Stamp Act not because of its assault on the rights of a free press but because printers happened to take a severe cut with each stamp they were forced to place on a newspaper.
But as Franklin’s mysterious early life fades into the Franklin we know—the politician and statesman of Early America—Brands’ narrative becomes stale and overdrawn. The last third of Franklin’s life is dry and stuffy, just like the summer chambers of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.
Brands tries to signal a more mature, stately Franklin in the last years of the innovator’s life, but instead sounds as though Franklin is a subject worthy of beatification. “In letters, science and commitment to the common weal, Franklin was the first—in the sense of foremost—American of his generation. Considering the length and breadth of his multiple legacies, he was probably the first American of any generation.”
The biting narrative that begins with a cockfight ends with a saturation of whiny phrases of adulation at gravesite. Brands’ attempt to make Franklin into a believable, fallible man dies once America is born. Lost is Franklin the pragmatist and born is the Franklin of elementary school boredom, a man worthy of reverence because he is dead, white and a founding father.
The First American
By H.W. Brands
Doubleday, first published 2000
768 pp., $17